Look, Don’t Pull!
It is our sand and water that make Fort Myers Beach its own unique brand of Paradise, and Mother Nature has wonderful ways of protecting these precious resources. One of those protections that ensure the survival of our sandy white beaches are our various varieties of dune vegetation, with deep roots that dig into the ground to hold the sand in place. The most common dune vegetation in our area includes sea oats, panicgrass, dune sunflowers and beach elder.
“Dunes and their vegetation are important because they protect the beach from storm surge and erosion,” says Rae Blake, the Environmental and Stormwater Technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. “Sand and soil preservation are the main jobs of dune vegetation, with their primary duty to hold sand in place. They create a wide and stable beach because dune grasses catch sand the wind blows away during erosion. Unless they receive human introduction, these are primarily beach plants.”
Rae cautions that “you should never pull dune vegetation because it is so important to beach preservation, with the Town requiring you to obtain a permit to remove it.” You may trim it but not more than four feet above the ground and it must look like natural growth. You can rake the areas around dunes with Town permission, including mechanically within a 10-foot radius, and hand-raking within 2 feet.
If you wish to do dune height modification, you need a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Town. Dunes must remain at least 18 inches tall, you can only lower it 18 inches per year, and the removed sand must stay on the beach spread out within a 50-foot area.
Sea oats are a tall subtropical grass that are crucial to coastal sand dune and beach plant communities. “Sea oats kind of look like oats, so that is where they get their name,” Rae explains. “Sea oats are pretty awesome; they catch the sand out of the air and keep it on the beach where it belongs.” Its tall leaves trap windblown sand and promote dune growth, while its deep roots protect beaches from high winds, storm surges, and tides, while providing great habitat for birds, small animals, and insects. Sea oats grow to 3 to 6 feet high, with its long thin leaves tapering to a point. They readily bury in sand, with dense surface and penetrating deep roots.
Not all dune plants are as big as sea oats. Panicgrass, or panicum, is a large perennial grass that grows in clumps but not quite as high as sea oats. It has narrow elongated silver leaves, and is found on sand dunes from New England to Mexico, with flowers that produce a well-developed panicle with numerous seeds.
Railroad vines act like creepers and cover a lot of ground – “they spread out really well, with nice big purple flowers,” explains Rae, “though they are not as common as sea oats.” Dune sunflowers are native to our coast, and “they bloom quite often during the year, providing good ground cover that is nice and low. They are essential to retaining sand on-site by preventing the wind from blowing it away.”
Beach elder are a lower-growth plant that tends to bush out, and that is ideal for sand retention. They are vivid green perennial shrubs, with multiple branches, upright stems that reach a height of 40 inches, and small lavender blooms from late summer to late fall. Beach elder accumulates sand rapidly and produces low-rounded dunes.
Rae describes Beach elder as “a nice backyard plant if you do not have a lot of space, as they grow in tight clumps, unlike sea oats that spread out. They are hearty, do not require a lot of water, and are tough to kill. If you plant dune vegetation, you only need to irrigate it for six months, then stop, because if you overwater, weeds will grow from the change in the sand’s salt content and take over the area.”
She concludes that “dunes are crucial for many different reasons. They perform erosion control, provide storm surge protection, create a wide and stable beach, potentially increase home privacy, and are beautiful natural elements of the beach.” For questions or additional information, contact the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202.